For his latest documentary, I Am the Blues, Canadian filmmaker Daniel Cross travels down to Bayou country for a look at one of the most influential styles of music in history. Born as deep in the south as you can get, the blues endures as one of the most personal and innovative styles of music. But instead of looking at the history of the blues, Cross’ film looks at the people carrying on the legacy of an almost literally dying artform. While the blues has always focused on people looking inward at their own humanity, more and more it becomes a reflection of their mortality.
For the men and women profiled in I Am the Blues – most of whom are octogenarians – retirement only comes with death, and few musicians are lining up to learn the intricate guitar and vocal work that made so many musicians working the old school Chitlin’ Circuit beloved figures. The fame of many such musicians might not extend past Louisiana and Mississippi and communities founded predominantly by hard working black folks, but they’re respected and revered just the same, providing not only the soundtracks for their own lives, but for entire communities. Combined, the artists profiled by Cross paint not just pictures of themselves, but a picture of the deep south as a whole.
It’s not an easy film to piece together into a 105 minute package, and Cross’ approach from the outset isn’t the most assured. While many of the musicians getting a chance to speak their piece, share stories, and help preserve their legacies are gregarious and fun to be around, there are far too many of them being trotted out. Cross wisely shows reverence to the music, and in some of the film’s best moments I Am the Blues plays like a concert film taking place in natural environments instead of concert halls and arenas. But those moments run aground of Cross having to move quickly onto a different person with a different story to tell. There’s a disconnect that suggests Cross didn’t have many ideas where to cut things short. It’s a film that doesn’t specifically have any bad moments, but it drags and could use some judicious pruning.
But just around the halfway point, a focus starts to appear as Cross defers to musician Bobby Rush to act as a guide of sorts through this world. More and more the film starts to follow Rush, Cross’ most open and analytic subject, and things come to life rather quickly. While all the subjects are special in their own ways, it’s Rush and the music that make it something special.